For years, Kagame's Rwanda Patriotic Front and the Hutu Interahamwe have accused each other of shooting down the plane that carried Rwanda's President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundi's Cyprien Ntaryamira. This act directly led to the killing of hundreds of thousands of people in both Rwanda and Burundi. Ethnic tensions had been simmering in Rwanda for decades, but it is the shooting down of president Juvenal Habyarimana's plane close to Kigali airport that started one of the worst genocides in human history. 800,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandese, mainly Tutsis and some moderate Hutus, were massacred in 100 days. The astonishing speed with which this killing took place points to a high level of preparedness by the killers, it couldn't have been spontaneous. I do not think even the Nazis, who had set up an entire system specifically for killing, ever managed to kill 10,000 people per day. So in my opinion, the Rwanda genocide had been planned for years, and the planners were waiting for an opportune moment to start the killing on a massive scale. What better opportunity than the death of the highest ranking politician in the country?
Before we discuss the events that touched off the killing, let's go back and analyze Rwanda's ethnic composition and the role it played in the genocide. Rwanda has three main ethnic groups: Tutsi, Hutu and Twa. Before colonization, Tutsi were mainly pastoralists, Hutu were farmers and Twa were hunter gatherers. There was a kind of caste system, with Tutsis at the top. Tutsis were generally wealthier than the other ethnic groups, but one's ethnic identity was not cast in stone. It was possible for a Hutu to become a Tutsi through intermarriage or if he got wealthy enough. When Belgian colonialists came, they exploited this structure as a way of divide and rule. The Tutsi were given preferential treatment, which only served to increase their resentment by the Hutu majority. In 1935, the Belgians also introduced identity cards that clearly showed one's ethnic group. Just before Rwanda's independence, the colonialists shifted their preferential treatment to the Hutu. Increased animosity led to clashes between the two biggest ethnic groups. From 1959 to 1961, the Hutu, through violence, and with the support of Belgian colonialists, managed to dominate all major institutions of Rwanda. About 100,000 Tutsi fled to neighboring countries, mainly Uganda, and the Tutsi monarchy was abolished. Rwanda gained independence in 1962, with Hutus firmly in control. Grégoire Kayibanda, an ethnic Hutu, was the country's first elected president. In 1973, defence minister Juvenal Habyarimana overthrew him in a military coup. In the decades after independence, both Kayibanda and Habyarimana exploited anti-Tutsi sentiment to stay in power. This led to regular bouts of anti Tutsi violence that saw many living in exile. The Rwanda Patriotic Front, recruited these exiled Tutsi youth and launched a rebellion that was aimed at overthrowing the government.
By 1991, RPF forces had come close to capturing Kigali, but were repulsed by Habyarimana's forces, with heavy support from France. This threat to the Hutu dominated government only served to increase anti Tutsi sentiment. Hutu politicians started mobilizing the youth to "defend" themselves against Tutsi "invaders". Apart from receiving some military training, these youth were also radicalized through anti Tutsi magazines and radio broadcasts. By 1993, it was clear that the RPF was gaining more ground, and it was only a matter of time before they took Kigali. In fact some, RPF units were positioned very close to the capital. These are the units that would be accused of shooting down the president's plane. Circumstantial evidence though shows that Hutu extremists were just as culpable.
By 1993, Habyarimana's regime had been forced to the negotiating table in a bid to end the Rwanda Civil War that had started in 1990 with the invasion of RPF. These talks, referred to as the Arusha accords, came up with a power sharing formula between the RPF on the one side, and the various political groups in Rwanda. Habyarimana was against the power sharing deal, as it watered down his powers as president, and also ceded a huge chunk of Rwanda's political landscape to the rebels. As such, he dragged his feet in implementing the accords. The more radical members of his government were totally against the idea of even attending the talks, and instead amplified their propaganda against the Tutsi. Feeling that they would be weakened by a power sharing deal, they increased the arming, radicalizing and mobilization of Hutu militia. President Habyarimana's death therefore would provide the perfect excuse to start their murderous campaign.
Eyewitnesses have claimed that the missiles that shot down the plane originated from a government controlled military base. It has also been said that the presidential guard, immediately after the plane crash, went about killing any eyewitness they could find. The president, before departing Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, was also warned to delay his flight because of credible intelligence pointing to a very real threat against his life. Zaire's president Mobutu is also said to have told Habyarimana that he had received a very credible tip from a french friend in the Elysee palace that a plan was underway to eliminate him. Despite these warnings, the president traveled anyway. We can only speculate as to how differently things would have turned out if he had heeded the warnings.
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